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Jewish World Review Sept. 10, 2001 / 21 Elul 5761

Evan Gahr

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Consumer Reports

The weed of all evil -- Smokers huddled outside office buildings may seem beleaguered, but they should count their blessings. The freedom to puff a cigarette downstairs at work is slowly being extinguished. With little fanfare, smoking has quietly been prohibited even outside the premises of many companies. Meanwhile, college students are told they can do most anything inside their dorm rooms, except, of course, smoke.

Close examination of these latest salvos against tobacco punctures the anti-smoking movement's self-serving myth that it represents the common good. Their bold-faced assault on individual rights - in this realm and others - is disguised as a non-partisan crusade to protect the health of innocent bystanders. But the real issue is personal preference, not health.

In the early 1990s, New York City, for example, banned smoking in most restaurants, supposedly to protect innocent citizens from the dangers of second-hand smoke. The "risks" soon proved highly exaggerated, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, but the regulations remained on the books. Sniffing victory, the smoking police grew increasingly ambitious. They even managed to have some stadiums decreed no-smoking zones.

Why stop there? Friendship Heights, Md., banned smoking everywhere outdoors, although the controversial policy was rescinded this March after an adverse court decision. But elsewhere around the country, regulations almost as intrusive are quietly enacted. USA Today reports that this July, the City of Eugene, Ore., banned smoking within 10 feet of business entrances. Also this July, the Kelsey Memorial Health Center in Lakeview, Mich., prohibited employees from smoking anywhere on hospital grounds.

But, hey, at least employees who sneak off the four-acre campus for a cigarette don't face a sniff test when they return. In Wilton, N.H., Kimball Physics, which manufactures electron and ion optics, doesn't allow anyone who smells of smoke inside its building.

Kimball President Chuck Crawford says the policy is enforced at the discretion of other employees. If an employee enters the building "tobacco contaminated" - his colleagues may remind him that he's a walking ashtray in violation of office rules. Thanks to peer pressure, employees are generally careful to make sure they don't come to work stinking of tobacco. Mr. Crawford says the policy is quite popular among employees and nobody has ever been fired for reeking from the evil weed.

But why are the scent police limited to tobacco? Think about it. By any objective standard, the employee who has a single cigarette outside the office probably returns to his desk far less odoriferous than the guy who has a hamburger topped with raw onions for lunch. But objective standards don't pertain.

Anti-smokers are better organized than the anti-onion set, so they alone can force their agenda on everyone else. To the victor goes the spoils, perhaps, but that's hardly a healthy or selfless attitude.

It does, of course, involve a "value judgment" and a restriction on individual autonomy which liberals are loathe to make in most any context. This bifurcated morality is particularly blatant on college campuses, such as Harvard and Oberlin, where the "anything goes" ethos excludes smoking. Even Brown University, which famously ditched required courses in the 1960s, has jumped on the anti-smoking bandwagon. Effective this fall, all residence halls and eating facilities are smoke-free.

What's the message here? Inside co-ed dorms, you can have sex to your heart's delight, but don't dare smoke a post-coital cigarette? Certainly, one random hook-up arguably could pose more health risks than a single cigarette. Nevertheless, the Brown administration cited "health concerns" about second-hand smoke to justify the new policy. Never mind, of course, that a student who smokes inside his room hardly inflicts second-hand smoke on anyone outside. The political climate is such that smoking is the only lifestyle choice which liberals can ostracize without being called intolerant.

The anti-smoking movement is just as judgmental and moralistic as other groups who would infringe on individual autonomy - only far less candid. Without the bogus veneer of health concerns, the crusade against third-hand smoke outside buildings and inside dorms could never succeed. It's no small irony that the same kinds of people who accuse tobacco companies of misleading the American public rely on quite a bit of dishonesty to advance their own agenda.

And moral turpitude, unlike third-hand smoke, really is noxious.

When not acting as JWR's Washington correspondent, Evan Gahr works as an adjunct scholar at the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity. To comment click here.


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© 2001, Evan Gahr